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Mattis Promises Defense Buildup Will Begin Next Year

Mattis Promises Defense Buildup Will Begin Next Year

David Adesnik
16th June 2017 - FDD Policy Brief

In a February address to the National Governors Association, President Donald Trump said that the first budget he submits “will include a historic increase in defense spending to rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America.” This echoes the president’s campaign promises of substantial growth in the size of the armed forces, including an increase of the Army from 479,000 to 540,000 active duty soldiers and the Navy from 276 to 350 ships in the battle fleet. However, to the surprise of lawmakers who support those objectives, the president’s first budget does not seek any increase in the size of the Army and adds only a single ship to the Navy’s construction plans.

In congressional testimony this week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis did not dispute that the buildup has been postponed. He noted that the president’s first budget “seeks to fill the holes” in military readiness, while the expansion and modernization of the armed forces will not begin for another year. Mattis’ testimony before the House and Senate suggests that he recognizes the need for several consecutive years of real growth in the defense budget to achieve real results. 

When questioned by House members, Mattis estimated that inflation-adjusted growth of three to five percent per year over the next five years will be necessary to achieve the president’s objectives, including an Army of 540,000 soldiers a Navy with 350 ships. These comments may have come as a surprise, because Mattis included no such estimate in the prepared statement that he submitted prior to his testimony.

What is needed now is for the White House to formalize its position in one of its major planning documents, such as the National Security Strategy it intends to release later this year. Alternately, the administration could deliver a clear statement in the forthcoming National Defense Strategy, which lays out the military components of the National Security Strategy. 

The most immediate test of the White House commitment to defense spending will be the outcome of the appropriations process for FY18, which begins in less than four months. The White House must secure the first installment of spending growth required to get the military back on its feet. This is a crucial first step, since the expansion and modernization Trump has called for would require significant annual increases at least through 2023.

David Adesnik is the director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik